Why replicating life in London is not a wise approach to levelling up the North - Natalie Bennett

Natalie Bennett says levelling up should not be about bringing London's "failed" model to the North. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA WireNatalie Bennett says levelling up should not be about bringing London's "failed" model to the North. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
Natalie Bennett says levelling up should not be about bringing London's "failed" model to the North. Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire
“Levelling up” is a phrase we’re going to hear a great deal about in the coming year. It is the Government’s apparent promise to the North.

At one level, that sounds admirable. “Levelling up” Pacer trains to the comfortably heated, wifi-equipped, non-leaking, cross-London train I caught a few weeks ago would certainly be welcome.

Funding for the arts at the level of London would be utterly transformatory. We’ve lost so much in recent decades in the creative sector in our communities.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly talked of his 'levelling up' agenda. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA WirePrime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly talked of his 'levelling up' agenda. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has repeatedly talked of his 'levelling up' agenda. Photo: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

So some “levelling up” along these lines would be welcome, but is it happening?

The evidence is that it is not. Central government funding for local government – the mechanism by which so much of what should be basic, taken-for-granted infrastructure is delivered, under what should be local democratic control – is not being restored from the slashed levels of the past decade, as costs and demands, particularly for adult and child social care services, continue to rise.

A small dollop of money for a feasibility study for re-opening a Beeching-closed line, or a new bus or two, is not going to counteract that.

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But even were we to imagine actual delivery of the promise – a very large leap in itself when the reality on the ground is considered – “levelling up” is a phrase that needs careful consideration, for what it suggests essentially is more of the same of what we have now.

Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party.Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party.
Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green Party. | Johnston Press

Life in the wealthiest parts of the UK (that is London and the South East) is far from a goal to aim for.

There is an epidemic of mental ill-health, air and noise pollution levels are deadly, foodbank use is high, housing is breath-takingly expensive and poor quality. Working hours are long, commuting times double the average of the rest of Europe, and travel conditions frequently miserable.

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Spending part of the week in London, as I’m doing now, I contrast the bus services to Sheffield’s, and on that basis they’re spectacularly good. If I compare the transport options to many continental cities, however, the level of walking and cycling provision, the cost and reliability of the buses and trams, London’s very much the poor relation.

Let’s not set the aspirations of the North so low and disastrously unsustainable as London and the South East.

What we want is something much better than this.

Which is where the vision of the Green New Deal, a just transition to a sustainable society in which no-one lives in poverty or faces insecurity, comes in.

We are collectively, no matter how you live as an individual, consuming our share of the resources of three planets.

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That can’t continue – the climate emergency, the collapse of nature, our oceans being turned into a plastic soup, our soils destroyed – the need to end those is not a question of politics, but practical reality.

The transformation that’s needed for our planet, however, can also tackle the social crises – of loneliness, poverty and insecurity – that we see in the richest and poorest areas of the country, North and South.

A warm, comfortable, secure home should be a given for all. An income sufficient to support a good, healthy diet, obtainable within walking distance ideally, or certainly an easy bus ride, of home, is a basic need.

The opportunity to join friends and family for a cup of tea or a pint, a good old natter and higher-level social support, if you need it, should be a given.

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There are many brilliant small projects across Yorkshire, that see individuals, small groups and communities, build a better life on a very different model.

The Valley Project, in Holme Wood, Bradford; the Real Junk Food projects across Yorkshire; Bedford Fields Community Garden, in Leeds; the Bare Alternative zero-waste shop, in Sheffield, in so many places, with tiny sums of money, community groups and small-scale entrepreneurs are achieving wonders.

That’s a model for a different way forward, a start towards strong local economies and societies based on small local businesses, social enterprises and cooperatives, built from the grassroots up. Westminster doesn’t know what York or Bradford, Doncaster or Rotherham, needs.

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These communities know what they need, can see its green shoots all around them, but they currently lack the power and resources to deliver, and “levelling up” – trying to bring London’s failed model to the North – is not going to deliver that.

Natalie Bennett is a peer and a former leader of the Green Party. She lives in Sheffield.